After some decent results in Isle of Man and Omloop 3 Provinces I was really excited to get stuck into my first UCI tour. This was Axel tour UCI 2.1.
Overall distance 320.1km
Stage 1 – 106km (day 1) Stage 2 – 12.2km (day 2) Stage 3 – 102km (day 2) Stage 4 – 99.9km (day 3)
I managed to get a place through Cervelo Goodzo who looked after me all weekend. Jim Brown was also guesting for them so it was nice to have another English speaker as well. I arrived in Axel on Friday morning to do a recon of the TT (stage 2) and then get ready for the evening stage, the race started at 5 so we had a bit of time in the hotel to organise our things before going as a team to the start.
The race started with the craziest neutral section. 170 riders all squeezing down lanes at 20kph was not fun. Everyone using anything remotely ridable from the road to deep gravel behind parked cars and in people’s front gardens. I didn’t make much progress before the race started so I was left pretty close to the back. This was not the place to be with crashes happening left right and centre. I was unclipping and sprinting back on more than I would in London traffic. If you were more than 30 back you would be taking corners at 2kph and having to get back onto the bunch moving at 40+kph every time. This was hard and left me in some really tough situations where I didn’t think I could re-attach to what was still a 150-man bunch. As people started to fatigue gaps opened more easily and people weren’t able to hold the wheel in certain situations. I managed to get myself right up there with around 30km to go we had done a few sectors of cobbles and were now on the finishing laps that we started with about 50km to go. With one lap to go I was right there maybe 2 rows from the front this made life so much easier even though it was the pointy end of the race. You could take corners at a normal speed and you don’t really have to put much effort after that. I got caught up behind a crash where someone missed the curb when hopping up to it taking out one or two riders in front. I had a little chase back on and from there getting to the front was so tough. I ended up rolling in 66th without losing time (apart from the leading 8 riders).
Day 2 started with a TT, some people had early starts but I had managed to get lucky with a 11:24am start time. We had breakfast and drove to the start where we warmed up and prepared for what was likely to be a 15-min effort. The course was 12.2km with some long straits and nothing too technical which suits me well. I started my effort well getting up to speed and into my position that I had been working on all week. I took a right hander on to some very light pave something must have gone wrong in the drive chain at this point as from then onwards I dropped my chain 5 times and I was sitting between two gears at the back. I could hold a speed but any extra power like kicking out of corners or pushing on would just result in the chain coming off. I talked to the team car following to try and organise a bike change but they weren’t sure if it was a good idea as more time could have been lost as I had already lost time because of the bike. This frustrated me immensely as I couldn’t get my effort out. I had good legs and with bunch finishes this would be my chance to move up GC. It was just one of those things that you have to move on from and I still managed to hold a decent speed to the line leaving me in 45th. (Image below is my chain with a twisted chain link causing the chain to drop)
Stage 3 was the same day at 5pm again. I was really determined to make something after the disappointment in the morning. So, having learnt from the day before, I got to the start line early and ensured I had a good position for the first 10km and then from there it only gets easier to hold it. The first cobble sector was 15km in so the goal was to stay up front until that sector. This didn’t happen but I didn’t slip back too far and on the cobbles, I made up some places so I was still in the better half of the peloton. The legs were tiered at the start of the stage this evening and it really made every acceleration so much harder. I had put in so many efforts on stage 1 just to stay in contact that it had taken a lot out of my legs. We had 3 finishing circuits today all 20km long. Me and Ollie (Rees) were always in similar positions in the bunch and we both made it right up to the front with 20km to go. I dropped into 3rd wheel with Ollie just behind me. This was the first time I had properly seen the front of the race and it was so nice. There were riders working for their team mates up there taking turns on the front to bring back a break away and I was just sitting in the wheels. I stayed right at the front until about 1.5km to go where I slipped back to about 10th wheel Jim was up there as always and sitting nearby but I couldn’t offer up any assistance as I was such an unreliable wheel to sit on at the time, getting pushed back and then finding gaps or just using the grass beside the road. With less the 1km to go we had to navigate a roundabout. A few crashes happened here holding up different sides at different times. I lost about 20 places in a split second and from there it was just about finding a wheel and hanging on to something. I rolled in 36th and finished a little frustrated but a whole lot more experienced. We went back to the hotel for dinner and a good sleep before stage 4 in the hills.
Sundays 4th stage involved 99.9km of racing and 1,300m of climbing up and down steep burgs, again I started at the front this was especially important as there was no neutral start and the first climb was 12km into the race. The whole race was just 3 x 33.3km circuits (satisfying) with 15 climbs to navigate. I started with the worst legs, I was swinging on the descents let alone the climbs, others were struggling also with the bunch nearly halving on the first lap. I said to myself it’s a case of when I’m going to get dropped not if I am, in the end I was wrong. I kept pushing, and pushing, 30mins in I would have told you this was the hardest day on the bike I have ever had and we still had 2 hours to go. Once the front group found its rhythm and people started to get tiered it became marginally easier to stay in contact up the climbs but the 2km set of cobbles up to the finish always exploded the bunch to pieces with bikes wheels and riders everywhere. The last lap came at last and my legs were shot it felt like I was riding a ton weight bike. My pure intention was to not lose any time to the main group. I managed this after the hardest effort up the Paddestraat before the kick up to the finish. In pure desperation, I ended up eating 5 gels and 2 bars which I’m sure isn’t great for my tummy but I wasn’t keeping count. It’s hard to explain how hard I found this effort, it’s definitely was the hardest thing I have done and I guess it has set a new standard of what is 100% in my head. This effort put me into 29th on GC which I was satisfied with after the bad luck in the TT.
I have to say thank you to Cervelo Goodzo for the opportunity and for looking after me and Jim all weekend from handing out bottles to massages at 10pm, it made life a lot easier.
Thank you to pedal potential for the support as always!
Next race CiCLE Classic